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NSA Wrestles With Phone Location Data Tracking

National Security Agency says it may have the authority to track U.S. citizens using mobile-device location data under "certain circumstances."

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The National Security Agency (NSA) is considering the surveillance of people in the United States by intercepting mobile-device location data, NSA general counsel Matthew Olsen said this week.

The NSA is still deciding whether it has the legal right to engage in this type of surveillance activity, Olsen said during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The hearing was part of the process to decide whether Olsen should take over as head of the National Counterterrorism Center--a position for which he's been nominated.

Currently the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not lawfully permitted except under certain circumstances to spy on U.S. citizens while they are within the United States.

However, in response to a question about whether government agencies have the authority to use cell-site information to track people in the United States for intelligence purposes, Olsen said there could be cases where this is permissible.

"I think there are certain circumstances where that authority may exist," he said, adding that it's a "difficult and complicated question."

The use of people's location-based device information has been a hotly debated topic on Capitol Hill and will have ramifications for technology companies like Google and Apple that have access to and control over that data.

In fact, back in May, executives from those companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law and defended their protection of that information to lawmakers who were concerned about its potential misuse.

For the record, they assured lawmakers they're committed to maintaining the privacy of users of Android-based smartphones and iPhones and iPads, which use geo-location technology to locate where a person is using a device so a range of applications can provide personalized services.

At the same time, however, they defended the companies' use of the technology, saying it provided valuable services to consumers.

Ironically enough, during the same hearing, a Department of Justice official called for laws requiring these types of companies and wireless carriers to store user location data that could be helpful to criminal investigations in which a person's location is critical to solving a crime. Of particular interest to the department are cases in which child abduction is involved.

A bill before the Senate now is aimed at providing some legal parameters for how this type of information can be used for intelligence or other investigative purposes.

The Location Privacy Protection Act of 2011, or S. 1223, proposed last month by Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would require that consumers are notified before any information collected from their mobile device is shared with third parties.

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